THERE was a time when Evertonians would grab the new fixture list to excitedly scan it for clashes with Sky’s big four.
Supporters could run their fingers through the games, mentally awarding points where predicted victories would come, and there was always pause for thought over visits to those cathedrals of football in Manchester or North London.
Similarly they had to concede that points at Stamford Bridge or White Hart Lane would be a bonus – and even comfortably beating any of these sides at Goodison was a lottery with improbable odds.
But such were performances last season, a well-earned point against Chelsea, unlucky to draw at the Emirates, victories at Goodison over United and Carlo Ancelotti’s eventual champions, perceptions have shifted.
Suddenly Blues are relishing visits of the top clubs; most know that wins are far from guaranteed but there is a new optimism for enthralling games and score lines to rock the Premier League once again.
Oddly, the emerging worry is that the new places to fear are in some very unlikely quarters. For unlikely, read Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, Ewood Park, The Reebok Stadium and Molyneux.
Sides which usually make up the stodgy middle tier of the top flight are in danger of becoming Everton’s Achille’s Heel.
On the surface, the fixture computer seemed to have handed Everton a charitable opening run of games with Blackburn and Wolves but David Moyes knew the opposite.
Look at Everton’s form against such sides last season. Scrappy draws home and away with Wolves and Stoke, defeat in Bolton and a last-gasp and hard-earned victory at Ewood Park.
Nobody needs reminding of the underwhelming nature of the Toffees recent struggles with Mick McCarthy and Sam Allardyce’s sides.
The concern then is that Everton are forgetting how to play sides who defend with men behind the ball, relish a bloodthirsty scrap for every ball and close down their better players relentlessly.
At Ewood Park, Allardyce shackled Mikel Arteta for most of the game by playing Phil Jones, a no-nonsense centre half, as his extra man in midfield. Pretty? It was about as picturesque as walking in on Big Sam on the toilet reading the Daily Star. Effective? Certainly.
Even when Blackburn’s high tempo dropped in the last quarter, Everton were unable to break down their stoic back four.
Then when Wolves came to town, the Blues might have created more than enough chances to kill the game in the first half but they converted only one. Not enough, and when Wolves started scrapping it was too much for David Moyes’ side.
Conversely, Manchester United suffered at Goodison last season for allowing Everton to flourish. Such was their belief that they could out play the Blues, they let them pass to their eventual dismay.
It’s an odd predicament. For so long Everton have been stifled with the patronising tag of battlers. From Joe Royle’s Dogs of War, to the Moyes side which finished fourth in 2005, pundits have always referred to the Toffees work-rate, combativeness and discipline.
Last season things started to change. Suddenly their football was winning the plaudits, and it was music to the supporters’ ears.
Phases of play against Alex Ferguson’s side and Chelsea were making purists sit up and pay attention. Their summary? At long last, Everton could play – the school of science was ready to take down the shutters.
But it’s important for the current squad to recall collectively that such acclaimed football was built on a platform of hard work.
They built their own stage to play by mixing it up. As Leighton Baines recalled when we chatted a few weeks ago, it was Everton’s ability to do the rough stuff and the elegance which was separating them from other sides.
As talented as Everton’s midfield artisans currently are, the club’s fortunes this season could be decided on how strongly men like John Heitinga and Marouane Fellaini are able to reassert their influence.
An early crunching tackle from either men can set the tone in games against more obdurate sides, while the rest of the midfield close down and harry the opposition like they would have down once against Manchester United.
When their opponents have realised they are not facing soft touches, their heads can drop and hearts can sink – viva Arteta and Pienaar.
There are so many tough, well organised, powerful teams out there – it is the default setting for any seasoned manager who wants to keep his club in the Premier League without a mega budget. Everton can’t let such outfits become their bogeymen or they will not be able to threaten the top five.
If they can find that perfect mix once again, however, there could be no stopping them.